Illuminate the Human

A few weeks ago, my youngest son Ali started asking me to find a computer game for him. "Illuminate the Human," he called it. I couldn't find a game that goes by that name. But if you Google the term you will find that the first hit is the Wikipedia entry on the human condition. I didn't read the entry. But I tried to imagine what a game called "Illuminate the Human" might be like. Comically, the image that comes to my mind is like some kind of PBSkids game, with a flashlight that dances around a dark screen and you have to find the cartoon person in the shadows. Games have become a big part of our lives around here. There are good points to that and bad points, but I am not going to analyze it now.

About a week ago, I discovered the game Ali was looking for on Facebook. It is not "Illuminate the Human," but actually "Mutilate a Doll." It's a bizarre physics game where you drop a ragdoll repeatedly to see how much damage you can inflict. It troubles me a bit, but I can see the humor in it. It makes my sons laugh and laugh.  I suppose for the same reason that the Three Stooges is appealing, or Funniest Home Videos of people accidentally hurting themselves.  It is easier to process the idea of personal injury, of death, if we are able to laugh at it. Laughter softens the quite visceral blow of how fragile we humans really are.

Death dealt my family a blow this year with the death of my Gramma Kathy. As I think about sitting at her bedside in her last days, I think I know what it means to illuminate the human. Not in a game, but in real life, where death is real and the pain of it lasts and lasts for those that are living. Gramma slept a lot at the end, after her stroke. She awoke sometimes, and while I was there only intermittently I was blessed to see her eyes open and have her smile at me twice. What a remarkable thing to have a person you love, who is transitioning into death, light up into consciousness. The last time I was with her, she held out her hand to me in a request to have me help her get out of bed. She couldn't speak, but she asked me repeatedly. "Help me up, help me up." I am so sorry that I could not help her up, that she was not ever getting up again. But I am grateful to her for asking, for illuminating what it means to be human as death approached. For wanting to keep getting up and for loving each of the people in her life with gloriously happy smiles at the end. I wish I could have kept holding the hand she offered to me that day, but instead it is memories that I cling to.

A picture of Gramma, taken by Ali.

A picture of Gramma, taken by Ali.

It saddens to me have recently needed to learn a new phone number for my grandfather. He is in his new house now, and it has made, for him, a lifelong dream come true. He is on his favorite spot on his farm, and, at age 89, hopes to live out his days there. I know he must be devastatingly lonely sometimes, but being in a new place makes it easier to be without my gramma. Still, I can tell you the exact moment I memorized my grandfather's old phone number. I was fourteen, and the friend who had come by to get my grampa's number said to me, "You mean you don't know your own grandfather's phone number?" Not too many years later, I often called that number before I would call my parents. My grandparents were always there if I needed them. The fact that I cling to a mere memory of their number illuminates a very human need within me. Now when I call the number that I took to heart over 20 years ago, no one will answer.

I have taken my grandfather's new number to heart, along with the need to forge a relationship with him anew as he walks into a different phase of life. But I must thank him also. His determination to see his dream of a new house come true illuminates another deeply human need, to see our hopes become reality.

I see that human need in action every day, whether I am helping a patron find a piece of transformative information at the library or watching my sons build insane worlds in Minecraft. I am satisfying that need as I type this, another blog post that I will send out into world, illuminating the human in me. 

Rivers and Reunions (or Carry Me Down to the Sea)

Back in June, I had the pleasure of traveling to Harrisburg for a workshop. I don't often go to Harrisburg. But I have traveled through it many many times, following Route 15 along the Susquehanna River. Traveling along this route is one of my most enduring childhood memories.

The Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg is a striking visual experience. It is expansive and dotted with islands large and small. As a girl, I delighted at seeing the miniature Statue of Liberty that is located there atop an old bridge piling. It was a landmark that signaled a turning point in the journey. From here on, the trip is punctuated with views and glimpses of the river.  Looking across it, sometimes in the gloom, it appears that the very mountains are floating along in the water. This is what Pennsylvania is to me - rivers and mountains. I imagine it was the same for the natives that lived in this place, and those settlers who came after them. The river was the roadway for them. They traveled it by canoe or boat, or they portaged along paths beside it. 

Dauphin County Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/ultimatelibrarian/238748139/in/photostream/.

Dauphin County Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/ultimatelibrarian/238748139/in/photostream/.

When my family lived in Virginia back when I was young, my parents would pile us kids into the car each holiday season and bring us to Pennsylvania and New York to spend time with our relatives. The trip was long for young kids, usually over 10 hours. We didn't travel well, as I remember, and we fought and squabbled and generally drove each other and our parents crazy the whole way. But when we got to Harrisburg, and that long ambling road that stretched along the river, I would know that the trip was at the beginning of the end. We would follow the river north to Williamsport, then turn toward Troy at Trout Run and keep going, north still. We'd travel through Big Pond, and then follow another waterway, only now, Bentley Creek, on our way to Wellsburg, where my grandfather lived.

On the night my family moved north to Pennsylvania, we traveled in two vehicles in the dark. Somewhere next to the river north of Harrisburg, a deer ran out of the forest and bounced off the trailer that my dad was using to haul our furniture to our new home. I can still hear the sound of the deer hitting the trailer, the deep reverberation so much like a gong. The deer was instantly killed. The family caravan stopped while my dad poked along the roadside looking for the animal. He found it and put its carcass in the trailer. When we arrived at my grandfather's house, where we would stay the night, he hung it in the garage and dressed it. I was on the cusp on being ten. My heart ached for the dead deer and it ached for my former home in the lovely mountains of Virginia. I was certain I would never see my childhood friends again, and this thought had me weeping during the trip. Watching the deer's blood spill out and swirl down the drain in the garage floor, I felt bereft. I did not appreciate the beauty of what my dad was doing at the time - salvaging what would otherwise be a complete waste of the deer's life.

As I drove along the river to Harrisburg, I thought of all the trips along that same route next to the Susquehanna. I thought of the deer and my sadness and how my childhood friends have, in recent years, been returned to me. I know that the river has left a mark on me indelibly. It and its tributaries are so much a part of my existence.

Back at work, I sit at my desk overlooking the Chemung River. To get to work, I follow a road that runs along Bentley Creek. The creek that runs along the back of my property empties into Bentley Creek. Bentley Creek empties into the Chemung. Along Route 17, I follow the Chemung as it darts along and over, back and forth across the river. I wonder if I am seeing the same drops of water that fell as rain on my property overnight run past me as I sit watching from my window at the library. I wonder about the inter-connectedness of it all. Just yards from where I can view the Chemung from my desk, the river empties itself into the Susquehanna. The two rivers become one and together carry their seemingly endless load of water down to the sea at the Chesapeake Bay.

View of the Chemung River behind the Spalding Memorial Library in Athens, PA.

View of the Chemung River behind the Spalding Memorial Library in Athens, PA.

My family has lived in Bradford County for generations. For generations, we have sweated and wept and bled and had all of those things washed away and into the river, to be carried down to the sea. At Assateague Island last summer, I delighted in explaining to my children that we could be bathing in the very same water that just weeks ago we splashed in when it was washing down the creek behind our house. I think this reunion of drops of water with our own same flesh amazes me more than it does them.

Terwilliger Creek at the back of our Centerville property.

Terwilliger Creek at the back of our Centerville property.

I went to two family reunions in July. The first was the Burgman reunion, the family of my mother's father. My grandfather Burgman passed away almost two decades ago, and I was not very close to him. But standing in the room at the reunion, I looked around and saw his eyes staring back at me, the same shade of icy blue. At the Robbins reunion only a week later, I talked at length with a woman who is descended from my great grandfather's brother. I could see no commonality in our appearances, but when she began to share her reverence for family history, I knew I had met someone with whom I was deeply connected. Her family grew up in Owego along the Chemung River. For generations, she too has had traces of her family history carried via the water down to the sea.

Back at the library, I did some research for the distant cousin I had just met. I read in a family history that her grandmother had once been her grandfather's school teacher. I love that I can open locked cases at the library and reveal antique books that spill out my family story to me. The pages crumble and smell dusty and ancient. The spines of the books crack and shatter. But right there on the page, I can see that in 1900, my great great grandfather Abijah kept Plymouth Rock chickens and 20 dairy cows. The books, like the water, carry bits and pieces of me and all that have come before me. At my family reunions, I am awash in those bits and pieces, swirling around me like the water when I am at the beach. Some of those drops I have known before, and some are alien to me. But all the drops come together to make an enormous pool of infinite togetherness.

I am hoping for a trip to the beach in the next couple of weeks. I have begun to think of going to the beach as a type of homecoming, perhaps the penultimate reunion. Here, I am connected with all the joy and grief, excess and privation, of every living thing in the world. I am reunited with the tears I shed at the thought of losing time with my children when I went back to work. Those same tears are there mingled with those my sister cried at the thought of losing the job that she loves. All of these things are brought together, along with the blood of the deer that washed down the drain in my grandfather's garage almost 30 years ago. In this wondrous way, the things we have discarded revisit us to make us deeply clean. I am made new again in a cauldron of all that has ever been. 

The Susquehanna River empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Image courtesy of http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=6011.

The Susquehanna River empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Image courtesy of http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=6011.


What? You waited HOW long? A Natural and Safe Miscarriage Journey

If you've read my blog before, you know that miscarriage has been a part of my life for many years now. My first one left me bereft over seven years ago. It has been followed by four others. Each one was different, and I coped with each in a different way. After so many, I no longer come undone over them. After having the issue of pregnancy loss in my life for so long, I feel only a marginal sadness. I can say this because I have three healthy and vibrant sons. I can say this because I spent most of last year dealing with a pregnancy loss. Yes, I suppose I am a bit jaded by now. But as I waited from April to December to pass a blighted ovum, I finally got the diagnosis that unlocked my miscarriage mystery. 

It is with a confusing sense of joy and deep meaning that I tell the story of what is most likely my last miscarriage. I want this story to help so many others. Because I came to this same laptop day after day during most of last year and Googled one question again and again, worded slightly differently every time: How long can a natural miscarriage take? (Just as often, the question was "How long is it SAFE to wait for one.") In whatever phrasing, I now have the answer to that question as it applies to me. I can't answer yours for you, but I can tell you my story and perhaps give you hope and courage when you are having trouble finding it anywhere else.

If you are of a mind and heart to do so, you can absolutely safely wait to have a natural miscarriage. When, last April, my midwife told me that my ultrasound showed a blighted ovum, I asked her straight-up how long can this take? Her answer was "A very long time." No one knows how long that time will be for you. And even if it isn't long, it will feel like much longer. Waiting for the products of a failed conception can be agonizing. It is more so if you are filled with worry.

You are more likely to be worried if you are being pressured by your healthcare provider to have a D&C that you do not want. If you are experiencing this type of worry, read on. There is a beacon of hope for you.

Last April found me waiting for an inevitable miscarriage to begin. I had some spotting from time to time, some cramping. No real progress.

May found me waiting still. Spotting and cramping. Waiting some more.

June found me getting frustrated. With no good answers every time I Googled. I went back to the midwife. I wanted misoprostol, a drug that I used safely in the past to facilitate a miscarriage. She told me that it was no longer a drug that the OB/GYNs at the clinic approved of. She referred me to a doctor who could perform a D&C.

When I went to see him, he told me the risks of waiting for the miscarriage to happen naturally were cramping and bleeding with a slight risk of infection. The risks he listed off for a D&C were certainly more numerous. They included, but were not limited to: a reaction to the anesthesia, hemorrhage, infection, my uterus being punctured, of blood clots forming that moved to my heart or lungs, of the procedure failing to remove the tissue at all. Scary stuff.

But I did not get scared until the day before my procedure when I sat down and Googled "Holistic Healing from D&C." The first page that came up was about Asherman's Syndrome. When I messaged my midwife, she said, "What the heck is Asherman's Syndrome?" I found that comforting. It is rare. But the condition can develop after a D&C when scar tissue causes the walls of the uterus to become adhered to each other. It can be corrected with surgery, but sometimes it leads to hysterectomy. For more info, click here.

If you follow the link, you will read that the risk for developing Asherman's Syndrome increases with multiple D&Cs. When D&C is performed due to a missed miscarriage, the risk is as high as 30%. I had a D&C for retained tissue after my first son was born. Plus, after so many miscarriages, I kind of feel like my uterus is generally in need of extra care and sensitivity. So Asherman's scared me. Plenty. I called the hospital and spoke with the midwife on-call. A different midwife. This one listened to my concerns and told me that I should listen to my body. With that one sentence, she gave me back my confidence in myself.

I opted not to have the D&C. I called the doctor and asked him for misoprostol. He told me that he did not endorse the use of the drug because of the risk of cramping and bleeding, and that I should "make no mistake, D&C was the only course for me."

Maybe I felt personally challenged. OK, YOU BET I FELT PERSONALLY CHALLENGED! But I knew he was wrong. I also know that cramping and bleeding are a normal consequence of miscarriage. Normal and natural. I would never expect to experience a miscarriage without those natural side-effects. I would still have opted for the misoprostol if I could have gotten it. I used it in 2010 and it worked well for me. The miscarriage was more painful than the others, but the bleeding was not really more severe. And there is practically no risk of developing Asherman's after using misoprostol.

So here we are in my story, and it is June and I have canceled my D&C procedure. The midwife I had been seeing told me she could be of no further help to me and the doctor was the most qualified to handle my situation.

Let me make no mistake with you,dear reader. You and you alone are the most qualified to decide what to do with your body once you know a miscarriage is inevitable. In my case, my body told me quite clearly that it did not want a D&C. Is your body saying the same to you? Good for you! Keep reading.

I waited all through June. Spotting, light cramping. July brought some heavier bleeding, more cramping. At some point toward the end of the month, the bleeding stopped. With my first miscarriage, I experienced some heavy bleeding and did not notice passing any tissue. So I thought, Well, that's it! I must be done now.

But I was still tired. A lot. And sore and achy in the places that only hurt during pregnancy. August came and I had a couple days of spotting. September came and I noticed a few more spots of blood. October came and for lack of knowing what to do, I took a pregnancy test. It was positive.

So I went back to the clinic. I asked to see the midwife who I had spoken with on the phone in June. The one who told me to listen to my body. I explained that I did not know whether I was dealing with a new pregnancy or the old one. I had no more spotting at this point. She ordered some bloodwork, which included measuring my TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone.) And I went in for an ultrasound. The mass of tissue was still there.

The midwife described the tissue as something of a scab. She said that it filled the entirety of my uterus. She recommended a D&C, which I flatly refused. She also told me that my TSH was abnormally high. "Has no one ever checked you for thyroid disease?" She asked.

No. No one had ever checked my thyroid. Even though thyroid disorders seem to run in my family, and I had the words "History of recurrent miscarriages" in bold on my medical chart. But this midwife did, finally.

My midwife agreed to monitor me with regular blood draws to check my HCG levels and periodic screening of my white blood cell count,which would indicate if there was any infection, There were no signs of infection, and my HCG was slowly falling, about 10 points lower every 7 - 10 days. In October, my HCG was 170. In November, it had fallen to 120.

I was sent to see an endocrinologist, one who specializes in reproductive issues. The first thing she did was recommend a D&C (Ha! Broken record, anyone?) She also ordered a screening for Thyroid antibodies. She gave me a script for 25mcg levothyroxine, and agreed to monitor my TSH and T4 levels until the end of my miscarriage before determining my long-term dose of the drug.

I digress. But I wanted to tell you, dear reader, that now I know. I know why I have had all of the miscarriages, the emotional upheavals, the reason why every pregnancy makes me into an exhausted and hysterical wreck. I am suffering from Hashimoto's Disease which has brought on hypothyroidism. It explains so much for me. In retrospect, I realize how lucky I am to have three healthy and beautiful sons. They seem even more miraculous now, if that is even possible.

November and more waiting. No spotting anymore. Regular blood work. HCG falling slowly. No signs of infection. It was suggested that I should be on "pelvic rest," a suggestion I did not follow. Regular TSH checks. It too fell slowly.

Slowly, it became clear that my body could not and would not do the work of completing the miscarriage until it had the energy to do so. That is, until my T4 levels were back within the normal range. I had procrastinated about taking the medication. I did not want to be on a script for the rest of my life. I researched all kinds of natural alternatives. But I was tired and I wanted to feel better. More than anything, I wanted a normal life back. I finally started the the prescription after watching this blog post by Dr. Clark.

This has all taken an incredibly long time now. Long for me to endure, long for me to put into words, long for you to read. So I will now tell you about the end. I started spotting again about ten days before Christmas. My last HCG level on December 11th had been 57. Heavy bleeding and cramping began on Saturday, December 20th. By Sunday, the bleeding had slowed to that of a light period. Again, I thought, This is it! Whew, that was easy! But I did not notice any passed tissue.

Monday, I was headed out the door to take my boys to the creek. I felt great. The sun was shining and it was a warmer winter's day. I put on my boots and opened the door and felt a slight cramp and then a tiny feeling of pressure. Then I felt something slid down and out of me. I ran to the bathroom.

I did not find what I expected. What I expected was a mess. Like all my other miscarriages have been. But what I found was something akin to an extra large gray bean. It lay there, almost bloodless. I hesitate only a bit to tell you, dear reader, that it was perfect. Perfectly formed, perfectly complete, and perfectly preserved. So perfect that I was left feeling nothing but an incredible gratitude that I was able to see it, to examine it, and to say, at long last, Good-bye.

And that was the end. No more cramping. Only a bit more spotting and then done. I did not get off entirely easily though. I made up for the lack of bleeding with my first menstrual cycle a few weeks later. It was truly a torrential downpour. Heavy periods may be the new normal for me as a result of my thyroid issues. But knowing that things are natural and normal is a surprising and enduring comfort for me.

The human body is amazing. It can do incredible things, unbelievable logic-defying things. Mine can and does everyday. And yours can too.

If you are wondering if you can do this, if you can have a natural miscarriage in the face of medical pressure not to, I am here to tell you that you can. You can do it safely. You have to be smart and know the signs of infection. You have to take the time you need to do it and take care of you throughout the process as much as you can. You have to be aware that it can take a VERY LONG TIME. Eight months, actually. Perhaps even longer, but I haven't found the anecdotal evidence that confirms this. Throughout the process of my last miscarriage, I encountered medical professionals who had never seen a miscarriage take so long. I invited them to journey with me so that they too would know what happens when a woman just decides to wait. And wait. And wait. Now they know how long a woman can safely wait.

And now you do, too. I hope your waiting is not as long as mine. But if you have found this blog post, my wish is that it has brought you some measure of relief. You are strong and capable and you can do this. When it is done, you can begin your life anew knowing that you did what your body and your heart told you were right.

All my best to you.

For more info on natural miscarriage, please visit my other blog post on the topic. http://www.centervillesworks.com/tiffanys-heart-health/2013/10/12/in-case-of-miscarriage

 

Suddenly, October.

And now it is October. It seems to have come out of nowhere. After a summer spent waiting. Waiting fruitlessly for the weather to get hot and muggy, for the season to feel like summer and for the brutal heat to ease and obliterate the frigid and lengthy winter that was our last.

Waiting for the plantings to yield edibles. Waiting for zucchini to grow, for broccoli to head, for lettuce that goes all too quickly into bolting. Feeling gratitude when that waiting came to an end.

Waiting for my last miscarriage to pass away and leave me. Waiting for the yearning and the wish to turn back time to pass away with it. Holding my babies and appreciating the delicacy of the lives I have been entrusted with. I am afraid that the ending of the story of my fifth pregnancy loss is a mere whimper.

Waiting and preparing and anticipating our trip to the beach, which finally did come. The first week of September we camped for four days at Assateague Island. It was the hottest week the Island experienced all summer, with temps in the upper 90s. So we got our summer all at once, smashed into 4 days of sunburn, invisible biting flies and hot breezes with no shade. But we swam and we played, we had campfires, and we sat together on the beach. We laughed when Celeus "kissed" the ocean for the first time as the sand was washed from beneath his feet while he stood on the shore. We buried Cyril and chased our rebellious, non-ocean-loving Ali off of the fragile dunes. We watched the sunrise and saw the way the water seems to glow as the sun shines on it anew in the early morning. We let the waves wash us clean in that way that only the ocean can.

Waiting again for the agonies of vacation stresses to blur enough to allow me to appreciate having gone. Waiting to forget just a little about the woman who totaled her car because she was watching Ross change a flat tire instead of looking where she was going. Thankfully, I am feeling this now. After so much waiting, I am feeling grateful that waiting is something that does not need to be actively participated in. Time will pass and things will change and the wanting of one thing or another will not necessarily alter the outcome.

But it is October, my favorite month. Now, my sadness over the summer that never-quite-was is fading away. It helps that we have just celebrated "The Decade of Cyril," when my first little baby turned ten. I think we had about 30 friends, all of them special to us. I am appreciative of their presence at this joyous time in our lives. And soon two more birthdays, when Ali is 3 and I am 36.

We are just a few days past our first frost. I anticipated it, dreaded it, but now am relieved that it has come and gone. It seems always the end of gardening season is a mix of both sadness and joy. Winter will come, but we will be together, keeping each other warm in all the ways that count. I am not waiting for it. It will wash over me, over all of us hopefully, like waves on the shifting sand.

The Albino Bluebird of Uncertainty

My father taught me to love birds. Not intentionally, but it was the result of the bird feeder he watched through our living room window when I was young. He kept it filled throughout the winter, and would announce the names of the birds as they came. Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee. Sometimes, a Cardinal, brilliant red against the backdrop of Pennsylvania's gray wintertime skies. Never a bluebird, (of course, bird feeders aren't their thing) but they are my favorite, and just as striking against the dreary skies of late winter and early spring.

I watch for bluebirds. This year, they first came back in mid-February. I looked out my kitchen window to see a pair of males fighting, claw and feather, over our bluebird house. The bluebird house is a bit old and dilapidated, but its location is prime, in the middle of our garden not too far from the fruit trees, with open acreage all around. In previous years, we've noticed the bluebirds like to perch on our garden fence, especially after their eggs hatch and they are feeding young. So I understand why those two lovely blue gents were fighting. They went at it for hours. As I watched them, I eventually caught sight of their mates, sitting not too far from the fray in the trees. At least, I am fairly certain it was two lady bluebirds. One of them had the classic lady bluebird look, gray above a pale red belly. The other, though, took some puzzling out. She was strikingly white, with just a smattering of gray on her wing feathers.

See this photographer's amazing photos at http://public.fotki.com/bhouston/miscellaneous/nature_pics/20090713-leucistic-/

When I saw her, I think I went into a bit of a panic. I grabbed our Audobon guide and hastily thumbed through it, wondering what white songbird existed that had escaped my notice for 35 years. When I found no such bird in the book, I went to the Internet, where I eventually found an image of an albino (bluebird.http://www.sialis.org/leucistic.htm). By the time I thought to take a photo of my own, the lovely white lady, along with all the other bluebirds, was gone.

I felt grateful to be visited by this mysterious pale lady. I felt especially blessed, as though I had come upon a sacred white buffalo. I felt compelled to watch and wait, sure that this blessing would come upon me again. The albino bluebird did not return, but the blessings kept coming.

My mom taught me to love babies. Not intentionally, but it was the result of seeing her come home from the hospital with four more in the years after I was born. She kept them bundled and close to her, and was attentive to their cries. Watching her, I learned the joys of inhaling their fragile smells, folding their little clothes, cleaning their smooth and perfect skin. Never a day goes by that I don't embrace my sons without an image of my own mother snuggling her babies in my mind. But as much as I love my sons, my heart and my arms long to embrace a little girl. Not having a daughter at times feels like the greatest failure of my life.

Having a daughter is unlikely for me. My husband has given me three sons. He was one of two sons, His father was one of two sons. His father's brother has two sons. If those odds aren't daunting enough, I suffer from a high rate of miscarriage. (For more on this, see my post from October 2013 http://www.centervillesubsistence.com/tiffanys-heart-health/2013/10/12/in-case-of-miscarriage)

So when I discovered I was pregnant a couple of weeks after seeing the albino lady bluebird, I became disproportionately excited. In my mind, an image of our daughter began to swirl and congeal in the mists of my mind. As the weeks started to feel like eons as pregnancy fatigue set in, my heart felt even more excitement. Surely, the odds were in my favor. I was a person chosen for special blessings. This feeling was magnified again when I came upon another natural oddity.

My sons taught me to love visiting our creek. Not intentionally, but it was the result of hunting them down there every time they got the yen to throw rocks into the water and vanish from the play yard. At times, our burbling creek is the most relaxing and replenishing place on earth. So I sought it out one tired day not too far into March. It was not a particularly nice day, but it was above freezing, which seemed incredibly special after the frigid winter we had just endured. I sat on the rocks and watched the boys try to break up the ice along the edges of the creek, smashing it with bigger and bigger stones. But then the sun that had only peeked at us all day vanished, and the sky began to spit a cold rain. As I stood to go, taking Ali's small hand, I looked down and saw the curled underbelly of a dead crayfish.

http://eol.org/pages/342963/overview

My sons also taught me to love crustaceans. Not intentionally, but it was the result of them stopping to admire and wonder over the doomed lobsters in the tank at the grocery store. I was overjoyed to find a crayfish at the creek. I picked it up and turned it over in my hand, holding it out for the boys to see. To my astonishment, we discovered the crayfish, from the tips of its tiny intact claws to the end of its curled-under tail, was strikingly blue.

Back at the house, I was back on the Internet again. Our find was unusual! Blue crayfish (aka the Monogahela Crayfish) are found only rarely within the Appalachian Plateau region where they live, and this was the first crayfish of any kind we have found after living here for eight years. With this, the crayfish took on mystical meaning for me. Surely, as I began to feel more tired and more nauseous day-by-day, I was finally going to be blessed with my own long-awaited oddity. Surely, I was going to birth a healthy, perfect baby girl.

True albinism is estimated to occur in one out of every 1,764 birds. Bluebirds are just one species of bird figured into that estimate, so an albino bluebird must be exceedingly more rare than that. A blue crayfish happens along here where we live approximately every eight years. And the odds of my miscarrying a pregnancy are sadly now 5 to 3.  I began to spot the second week in April.

At first I knew the worst was true. But then I was back on the Internet, reading heart-warming stories of women for whom bleeding during pregnancy is normal. I read story after story of women who rushed to the hospital expecting to find they were miscarrying, only to have an ultrasound reveal a strong and healthy baby growing inside. I was in the midst of a kind of winning streak, and the odds, though long, seemed to be in my favor. While I waited for the day of my appointment with my midwife to come, I existed in world tinged rosy with hope. But as I was ushered into the ultrasound room, filled with dread over entering again into the same place where I learned that our last baby had died en utero 19 months before, a feeling of finality settled upon me. I knew even before the kind ultrasound technician showed me the image on the screen. No fetal pole. No small and steady heartbeat. Only an empty sack. The emptiness seemed to expand then until it consumed the whole of me. As I sit here waiting for the cleansing which will take that empty sack away, that feeling of emptiness persists in me still.

My husband taught me to look for the blessings in everything. It was no doubt intentional, a lesson I truly needed to learn. He did it while I was reeling from my first miscarriage seven years ago, the one that prompted me to leave my job as director at the Sayre library. As we talked and planned, and I worried over leaving a job that I loved but that stressed me unduly, he pleaded with me to stay calm and walk forward. "The baby is not the gift," he said. "The idea is the gift." The idea was that the universe would take care of me, of us, as it saw fit. With those words, I embraced our plunge into a more uncertain existence. I do not regret it.

And so it is that again, the baby is not the gift. What is the gift? I am grateful to know that whatever it is, it exists already. I just need to find it. I just need to embrace the world of blessings and teachings that I already call my own, stay calm, and walk forward into the uncertainty.

 

In Case of Miscarriage

Dos and Don'ts for a Natural Pregnancy Loss

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These tips are garnered from my experiences during four miscarriages. I am NOT a trained herbalist or naturopath, and the advice I lay before you is not meant in any way to substitute for the advice of a trained medical professional. I have personally used and can vouchsafe each of the herbs and remedies discussed in this article. However, you should discuss all supplements and dosages with a certified healthcare practitioner.

It was the case with me that each time I miscarried a baby I knew ahead of time that the loss was coming. Or was it that it had already occurred, just that the ripples of it had not reached the outer shores of my awareness? This is the way for most women these days; either hormone levels or ultrasound results reveal that no viable new life lies within. I think this is a mixed blessing. I always find myself making room in my heart for a new baby the minute I get the faintest pink line on the pregnancy test. For me, the new life exists undeniably from that moment on. In spite of tests showing inadequate hormone levels, or morning sickness that vanishes suddenly early in the pregnancy, even in spite of the dark brown spotting that is sometimes the first sign, I can never seem to lose the hopeful space in my heart, or to entirely fill that space afterward. These tips are for the time that comes after knowing you are not going to bring forth a living baby. For those who choose to miscarriage naturally, this is a time of both grieving and waiting.

Do begin the process of grieving as soon as you know. I believe grief is a necessary part of allowing a miscarriage to proceed naturally, and this is true whether you know of the loss for weeks or only minutes before the physical process of miscarriage begins. For me, it seems the more I hold on to the idea of having a newborn baby, the longer the process takes. During the waiting time, maintain a dialogue with your lost baby that communicates both gratitude and release.

Don’t let yourself be pressured into medical intervention. If you are going to do this naturally, that means no D and C, no Misoprostol to stimulate contractions. I let myself be talked into speeding my third miscarriage with medication. While it was convenient to “schedule” my miscarriage, it was by far the most painful miscarriage I had. I was having a hard time emotionally and could not bring myself to begin grieving which truly does stall the process. If you have waited almost a month for miscarriage to happen, you may be feeling the pressure of your OB/GYN to get things moving to reduce your risk of infection. But if no signs of infection are present (fever, pain, foul odor) then it is perfectly fine to wait. Refer back to the paragraph on grieving and be patient.

Do use natural remedies to promote miscarriage and heal the uterus. An herbal combo of red raspberry leaf and black cohosh can help to speed the onset of the miscarriage while it prepares the uterus for the labor. I have used it with success. Blue and black cohosh can be used together to promote onset. But by far my favorite remedy is homeopathic Sabina. Sabina is used to treat heavy menstruation, but it is also an excellent promoter of miscarriage, stimulating the uterus to release its contents. Sabina should be kept on hand in case of retained tissue or prolonged heavy bleeding. It will help with both. Sabina can also be used in conjunction with the herbs listed above.

Don’t use crampbark during the actual miscarriage process. By this, I am referring to the time when your uterus is cramping or contracting to bring forth the expired tissue. Miscarriage pains vary widely in intensity. With my first miscarriage, development stopped at 2 or 3 weeks, and it was no more than a heavy period. When my second miscarriage came, development had stopped at 5 or 6 weeks. That time, the cramps meant business, and I was debilitated by them. Unfortunately I was at work when they hit, and it was one of those times when there was no one to work for me. I got about halfway through the day before I took the crampbark. This wonderful herb works beautifully, the pains and heavy bleeding began to subside. But I had prolonged bleeding after that, a sure sign of possible retained tissue. After 6 weeks, I took the remedy Sabina, passed the tissue (a small bit, no larger than a fingernail) and the bleeding finally stopped. For more on Sabina, see the tip above.

Do prepare yourself for after pains, especially if you have given birth before. A tincture combo of hops, cramp bark, and blue cohosh will relieve the intensity of pains while your uterus does the work of recovering from pregnancy. Dosage is 20 to 40 drops as needed, not to exceed 4 doses in an hour. These same herbs can be taken in tea form.

Do ask your doctor or midwife what you can expect during your miscarriage. Of course a loss at 4 or 5 weeks is not the same as a loss at 16 or 18 weeks. It is helpful to know how much tissue you can expect to pass. With my fourth miscarriage, the fetus died just short of 12 weeks. When the miscarriage came, the tiny fetus I passed was about the size of an Easter egg with its umbilical cord attached. I also passed a small mass of tissue, which I assumed was the complete afterbirth. After three days of heavy bleeding it became apparent that I had not passed everything. The tissue remaining to be passed was the size of a large grapefruit. Bringing forth the remainder of the tissue was not unlike labor. In fact, a natural miscarriage at any point after 12 weeks proceeds in much the same way as a live birth. My later-term miscarriage even began with the bag of waters breaking. If you are experiencing a late-term miscarriage, talk extensively with your doctor or midwife so you will know what you are in for. You may even want to consider having a midwife present.

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Do be prepared for blood loss, but know the signs of hemorrhage and get medical care if needed! A certain amount of heavy bleeding is normal. But, if you are soaking more than one pad in an hour, it is time to go to the ER. I did go into the ER after substantial blood loss with my fourth miscarriage. Heavy bleeding accompanied by chills, dizziness, and a feeling of prickliness all over my body were all indicators that it was time to seek medical help. Badly in need of fluids, I felt much better after I was put on a saline IV drip. I was not prepared for heavy blood loss because I did not have what I needed.

Any woman embarking on a natural miscarriage at home should have shepherd’s purse tincture on hand. This wonderful herb can assist in slowing bleeding. Administer as needed. Additionally, chlorophyll or “green drink” will help to keep your body nourished and replenished in the case of heavy bleeding. I highly recommend Dr. Schulze’s SuperFood Plus for this purpose. It kept me from passing out during more than one miscarriage. With miscarriage number four, I did not have shepherd’s purse tincture. I simply could not find it in time, though I used it successfully during my third miscarriage. It may or may not have prevented my trip to the ER. In any case, please be prepared for heavy bleeding, and if you begin to experience chills, dizziness, or a “pins and needles” feeling throughout your body, get help at once.

Do accept the loss as a gift from the better-knowing power in the Universe. This does not make the loss less genuine or significant. But accepting the unknown wisdom of the Divine is the key to placing control of the mystery of life into greater hands, thus releasing you from any temptation to blame yourself for the loss.

Do also accept the comfort of your partner and the solace of your friends. Now is an excellent time to pamper yourself. Take hot relaxing baths (though not when bleeding), drink wine, read a good book. Let others do for you. You will especially want help if you have young kids at home. I was so fortunate that during my first miscarriage, my in-laws took my 2-year-old son, and I could just lie in bed with my partner’s arms around me for hours. At the time I was experiencing a curious mixture of grief and clingy love whenever I was with my son, making the experience harder. His presence made me acutely aware of the precious life I had lost. For this and other reasons, I recommend that you get someone to take the kids for a while.   

Don’t forget to express your grief to those closest to you. Your partner may or may not be experiencing the same feelings of loss that you are. This can create a stressful dynamic if you find yourself grieving for an extended period of time. Of course, the process of grieving has its stages, anger being one of them. Reminding your partner that you are going through this process will promote understanding of this anger as well as the other faces of grief. And though it may be difficult for them to understand, children also need to be aware of the loss that has occurred. How else are they to know that Mommy has a good reason to be sad? You may also experience some conflicting emotions when you are around your young children. I find that my sons are daily reminders of all that makes life precious. But during pregnancy loss, they are also reminders of the new life lost. This is common. In time, however, I have found that hugging your children close is a crucial part of the healing process.

Don’t think of your womb as a vessel of death. After four miscarriages, I sometimes fall into this thought-pattern. But I also share my life with three precious sons who are a testament to the amazing life-giving properties of my marvelous uterus. It is true that a woman can wait several weeks before her body begins to expel the remains of her baby. But in almost every case, the womb possesses an innate wisdom and knows exactly what to do. Your body begins the work of carrying a baby at the slightest hint of life developing within. If you look at the ultrasound of a 3 – 5 week blighted ovum, you will see the structures that were to become the amniotic sac and placenta, even though the clinician can identify no traces of embryo whatsoever. How astonishing and moving it is to know how quickly your womb will embrace the chance to harbor new life. When there is a loss, your body follows a pattern of gradually decreasing hormone levels that somehow bridges the gap between life and death for the fetus. Imagine that the uterus can carry death within it and still pose no risk to the life of the woman. It is astounding! But I like to think of my womb as the first heaven for my unborn, a place where they were immersed in nurturance and love.

Do take time for your body to recover. If this is your first pregnancy loss, you will want to try again right away. Waiting a few months is a good idea though, continuing to nurture yourself with nourishing foods and supplements, of course. I have found that recovery is an also excellent time for self-reflection. When someone suggested to me during my first miscarriage that it was now time to re-evaluate my reasons for wanting a second child, I was deeply offended. But after many years I can now see the wisdom of that suggestion. If you already have children, ask yourself, do you truly want another? If so, may it be the case that the timing was not right? A miscarriage may also be a good prompt for you to re-evaluate your diet and the stress level of your lifestyle, as well as your general health. Be patient, be kind to yourself, and be open to all the possibilities.

Fireflies

It is September, and people are saying good-bye to summer. I started saying my good-byes a few weeks ago. I listened in the mornings and noted that the only sounds were from the crickets and hoppers. I felt the absence of the song birds’ serenade. I saw birds leaving in flocks. I observed that the leaves were subtly beginning to turn, and that vines in garden were turning brown as they yet bore their ripening fruits. I started saying my good-byes when I noticed these things. But they weren’t good-byes filled with sadness, but rather filled with gratitude. It is when things are departing that they can be the most appreciated.

So it was for me a few years ago when we took a walk in the evening on the last night of the fireflies. It was a walk like any other, a chance to enjoy the peace of a late summer’s evening and let the dog stretch and run. But as we walked through the damp tall weeds, we saw that the fireflies lay among them by the dozens. Their small dimming lights flickered among the flora all around us. Some of them were blinking and some held their lights steady. There was a stillness about each one of them as they lay there, motionless, all but spent except for their fading lights. We looked to the fields on the east and west of us and saw not a single firefly in the air.

We walked out into an ordinary night and found ourselves in the last night of the fireflies. The fireflies have been gone for a couple of weeks now, and I do miss them. But in the evenings, as I note their absence, I do not feel as grateful as I did that night when the fireflies lay as sparkling, dwindling embers in the dewy weeds. Even the gratitude I feel when I see fireflies for the first time every summer is only akin to that feeling.

The fall is full of changes and good-byes. Here’s hoping that all of our good-byes come to us gradually, so we have time to experience them with a beautiful gratitude.

Courtesy of http://thepolohouse.blogspot.com/2011/07/fireflies.html

Gardening gone Wild!

The view from my kitchen window is wild! I see it often, as I stand at the counter in the kitchen a lot during the day (what mom doesn't, right?). I find myself looking out at the wilderness that is our garden and thinking it is both beautiful and amazing. Beautiful because it teems with life of all kinds. And I am sure this photo shows you why it is amazing . . . it is amazing that I can still find the edible things that are growing in it.

So much good stuff.

In this photo, you can see apple trees, pear trees, and an elderberry bush. You can see row and rows of salad greens, mustard greens, chard, and beets. Peas and beans are growing on trellising. A stand of pigweed (one of our favorite "weeds") stands toward the back of the photo. And there is plenty of onions and garlic to be found. All around the perimeter of the garden are raspberries and black berries. Ok. So maybe you can't SEE all of that exactly, but it is there, growing and doing very well.

The diversity you see in the photo serves us wonderfully. Asters and umbels act as insectories for beneficial insects. Nothing is grown in monoculture over a large area so as to discourage infestations. But by far the aspect of this garden that I most enjoy is the almost ceaseless birdsong.

We are visited by dozens of species of birds each year. Robins, orioles, yellow finches, yellow warblers, cat birds, mockingbirds, blue birds, tree swallows, and barn swallows are just a few of our guests. This year, a pair of brown thrashers nested in our plum grove and became quite cheeky with us, even though they are described in our Audobon guide as being shy birds (!?). We also attract a few cedar wax wings, though honestly I'm never thrilled to see them. But as an enthusiastic bird-lover, I am thrilled daily by all the sounds and flutters of assorted wings. And I think my condition is contagious, as our son Cyril spear-headed the building and installation of a new bird house this year. Plus, I've had more than one bird recuperating in a soup bowl this summer!

A robin. It stayed one night and then was returned to its parents the next morning. I love reunions! 

One plant we did not let "go wild" this year was our cucumbers. We have terrible problems with cucumber beetles every year. We think this is because they seem to be attracted to corn, which is planted in fields all around us. So we potted our cucumber plants this year, just in case we needed to move them under cover. So far, we've had no infestations of the dreaded cucumber beetles, but the plants have not been as hardy or as prolific. I'm still making sour dill pickles though, just in very small batches.

Averaging about 4 -6 cukes per week, and only a few plants. Not bad, really . . . 

Here is another feature I love . . . Ross planted this locust tree near our existing gate to eventually replace the fence post there. Look at how it has been interwoven into the fencing. I enjoy imagining how it will look someday . . . 

These last two picks are simply for the drool factor . . . enjoy! 

Black raspberries . . . Ross' favorite! 

October is going to be so delicious this year!

Overview of a Nutritive Year

Getting to know your land and its native flora intimately is a necessity if one is to take full advantage of its health-sustaining resources. There are a number of species with nation-wide distribution that are prized for their nutritive value. Some of these are steeped in a history of folk wisdom that makes them and their prescribed usage seem rather commonplace. Other plant species are scorned as invasive pests by many landowners who are unaware of the true value of the resource at their disposal.

After several years on our permacultural homestead in Northeastern Pennsylvania, my partner Ross and I have discovered that both commonplace and lesser-known health-giving plant species can be found here. Additionally, we have found that products from pasture-raised animals are also important for proper human health and nutrition. As many of the healthful plants we seek out are located in the outer zones of our property, it is usual to keep some sort of calendar. This motivates us to search out the resources that are to be found at the specific times that we can find them. Let us take a seasonal overview of a few of the most important plant and animal resources you may have at your disposal, including ways that these resources can be preserved to maximize their value.

Early Spring

Perhaps at no time of year is it more difficult or more crucial to obtain fresh, vibrant, life-giving nutrients from our Earth than at the end of winter. While we must and do store enough food to get us through the coldest and darkest months, naturally some foods are canned or frozen and are not of the same quality as their fresh counterparts. So, in the early spring, we anxiously await the green new life that springs from the ground. We are fortunate to have an ample supply of two species that are nutritious as well as flavorful. The first is Hesperis matronalis, or dame’s rocket. This prolific member of the mustard family thrives in woodland margins and is well known throughout the countryside for its showy and fragrant purple or white blossoms. Many people in our part of Pennsylvania erroneous call this plant phlox. The dark green or reddish purple rosettes of the biennial dame’s rocket can be found in the earliest part of the spring or even dug right out of the winter snows. Frost vastly improves the flavor. We prize the tender leaves of these rosettes, which can be eaten raw or steamed. (As with all members of the Brassicaceae family, people with thyroid issues should avoid eating it raw, as this can further inhibit thyroid function.) Like mustard greens, they are high in Vitamin B6, C, and E, as well as calcium, and manganese.

The second early riser is the much maligned nettle Urtica dioica plant. While even I feel a compulsion to curse this lovely plant whenever I have an encounter with it that leaves me burning from its sting, I still find this is my favorite plant of the springtime. The tender young shoots can be eaten raw, though this can sometimes result in a few stingers on the tongue. Steaming is a safer and delicious way to enjoy them, and they also make an incredible pizza topping. Nettle greens are high in Vitamin C, A, and D, as well as iron and choline.

Also in springtime, we often await the freshening of our goats and the new supply of rich raw milk they provide. We prefer to breed our goats late, if possible, so that the kids are not born into the worst part of the winter cold. When kidding does not happen until May, it can feel like an eternity. Anytime a mammal gives birth, the first day of milk is rich with colostrum, an all-important immune-building nutrient specially designed to give newborns the best chance of survival. Colostrum from pasture-raised animals is full of immunoglobulins that are also effective against many human pathogens. Harvesting colostrum from animals is risky, as it does deprive the newborn animal of a portion of its birthright. It should be done only if there is genuine need and acute human suffering. One may want to use colostrum in cases of lingering or recurring respiratory ailments, or to combat a serious infection, such as Staph or Strep. But each drop should be treated as precious. No more than three teaspoons should be taken from goats. Up to four tablespoons can be taken from cows. Colostrum should be frozen immediately, and never exposed to high temperatures.

Spring, planting time

When it comes time for garden prep, it is handy that some of the weeds we need to remove from our garden beds also happen to be highly nutritious and refreshingly yummy. It is rewarding to pull these weeds out of our garden and then put them on a plate. One of our most prized weed competitors is the biennial Arctium lappa, or common burdock. We find that both the first-year roots and second-year shoots to have a great texture and fine taste somewhat reminiscent of the sunchoke. We have used burdock in stir fry, soups, and as a roast vegetable. It is high in vitamins C and E, as well as folic acid, niacin, and inulin. In traditional herbalism, burdock root is highly regarded as a blood cleanser.

The fragrant joy of blossoms . . . 

The fragrant joy of blossoms . . . 

Another weed competitor that we commonly eat is the young shoots of Phytolacca americana, or pokeweed. Many recommend that the shoots be boiled with a change of water, but we have eaten them lightly steamed or raw with no ill-effects. Poke shoots are as delicious as asparagus, as well as being high in Vitamin A.

Summer

For us, summer is the time of year with the heaviest workload. Luckily it is also the time of year when it is the easiest to be in good health. Indeed, health seems to pour from the sky, and the air seems filled with it in the wake of the glorious sounds of life all around. The biggest challenge for me is simply getting to the nutritious goodies that nature presents in a timely fashion, so that they don’t go to waste. Gathering and preserving to prepare for winter ahead is absolutely necessary to ensure year-round health. Early summer presents us with challenges because the work of preparing for winter begins even before the garden has been fully planted.

Luckily for us, one of the most important plants for wintertime health has volunteered to grow for us right outside our doors. This plant is the sacred elder, Sambucus canadensis, and it is known for its anti-viral properties. Both blossoms and berries are important for immune support and can be harvested at the right time to be made into syrups. The leaves, twigs, and seeds of the elder contain a substance that the body metabolizes into cyanide. This can create a toxic build-up in the body, but if your syrups are used appropriately as medicine this need not concern you. The flowers do not contain this substance, so this year I opted to make my wintertime syrup from them rather than the berries.

A simple cold water soak yields this sweet and lovely extract. 

Elderflowers are at their peak in early June. Look for flowers that are in their peak bloom. Also, you want to find elderflowers that smell particularly fragrant to you, as this helps you to gauge your compatibility with each particular plant. Always be sure to express your gratitude to the plant as you harvest from it, and never take all the blossoms. You may want to come back for the berries at the end of the season, and you definitely want to leave some for the birds who fill your garden with glorious birdsong while helping to keep your insect predators under control.

Blossoms should be removed carefully to minimize the number of stems that make it into your brew. Mature blossoms can be shaken off easily, or you can snip them from the stem. I’m not sure how many blossoms I harvested this year, but I needed just over 2 quarts of cold water to cover them completely in the bottom of a large pot. Cold-soak the blossoms for 24 hours, covering with a cloth to keep out flies. The resulting liquid is amber in color, and smells and tastes sweet and delicious. Strain your liquid and take your blossoms to your goats. (Hopefully they have also enjoyed your stems, twigs, and other leftovers, since elder is one of their favorite treats.)

Heat the elderflower extract just enough to mix in your sweetener. Two quarts of liquid will need 10 cups of sucanat or 8 – 9 cups of honey. Also add 1 tbsp of vinegar. Avoid bringing your syrup to boil, but do heat it thoroughly and let simmer for 20 – 30 minutes. The resulting syrup will be surprisingly dark. You now have a yummy immune-supporting syrup to get you through wintertime cold and flu season. Either store it in the fridge or process for 5 minutes in boiling water bath to seal. A similar syrup can be made later in the season by boiling the berries and then straining them.

Most of the syrup was gone by wintertime (note to self: make more this year.) 

Most of the syrup was gone by wintertime (note to self: make more this year.) 

Late Summer / Early Fall

If you pasture-raise beef, lamb, or pigs for slaughter, than by fall your work has no doubt come to fruition and you are enjoying the delectable meats that are your due. But if you are wondering what to do with those large chunks of fat that seem entirely inedible to you, consider that the fat of pasture-raised animals is an excellent storehouse for bio-available Vitamin D. In fact, tallow, suet, and lard are the best wintertime source of Vitamin D for those of us who do not have access to it via the creatures of the sea. We do not have the land or resources for keeping cattle, sheep, or pigs, but we have been fortunate to be able to barter locally for a supply of lard or tallow to get us through the months when we simply cannot get our Vitamin D from the sun. Tallow, lard, or suet can be rendered in a slow-cooker or a low-temperature oven. And of course, your drooling dog is standing by to take care of the leavenings that do not melt down.

Tallow and suet make excellent heat-tolerant greases for frying. Lard has many uses, but it makes superior pie crusts and biscuits. I have been known to use it in cookies as well.

Red clover

Another resource we harvest this time of year is the blossoms of the red clover, Trifolium Pratense. Wherever you are, I am willing to bet you can find some red clover growing near you. The dried blossoms make a wonderful tea that is useful for the treatment of lung ailments and is also a mild sedative. Red clover is known as an herb for women because it has a hormone-balancing effect. But recent research has shown that red clover may help to prevent heart disease and treat cancer, so men should also make this herb part of their daily cup.

Fall Harvest Season

If you have had a successful gardening year, now is the time when you are putting your vital root vegetables to slumber in the root cellar to get you through the winter. Root cellaring is a crucial part of the healthful year, because root vegetables such as carrots, beets, and celeriac actually maintain life while in storage.

You’ll also be wanting to replant your garlic so that you have another beautiful life-sustaining crop for the next year. Garlic is not called “poor man’s penicillin” for nothing. My partner Ross and I usually eat a raw clove of garlic each day throughout the winter. When it comes time to replant, I’m always reluctant to see our big, juicy garlic cloves go back into the ground. But looking to the future is an important part of raising a healthy family.

This is also sauerkraut season for us. Sauerkraut is a great way to preserve the Vitamin C, Calcium, and other minerals in cabbage, while infusing it with life-giving probiotic microbes. Eating sauerkraut and other fermented foods is one of the best ways to balance and maintain intestinal flora, and remember a healthy gut means a healthy you!

Winter (Cold, Cruel, and Seemingly Endless)

As the cold dark days of winter set in, both humans and plants find some much needed time for rest. Sadly, we humans cannot quite reach the same state of dormancy as our green allies outside. But there is one more resource that awaits us on the edges of our property, and it is only just reaching its maturity when December sets in. So no matter how cold and dreary, we must put on our boots, trudge through the occasional snows and head to the margins of our property. For there, along the edges of the land we maintain, we find a most abundant, flavorful, and strikingly beautiful source of Vitamin C in the form of rose hips from the multiflora rose bush (Rosa multiflora.)

The multiflora rose bush holds a special place in my heart. While I was growing up here in Bradford County, my grandfather would often walk with me around the property and point out the dozens upon dozens of bushes that grew all around. He would tell me about how the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Bureau of Forestry heavily promoted multiflora rosebushes throughout the 1940s and 50s s a “natural pasture fence that no animal could get through.” If the farmers of my great grandfather’s generation once planted multiflora in neat and tidy rows throughout our county, there is no sign of it now. They grow everywhere, all across the nation, and the Department of Agriculture considers them an invasive exotic. You will find the maligned multiflora on the top of the PA’s “noxious weed” list. I chuckle at the irony of this, even while I wish that property owners could take a step back and realize what a treasure they have at their disposal. The hips of the multiflora rose are small, but plentiful. You will find the red hips sweet on the lips (especially after being frosted) and lovely against the backdrop of winter snows. Enjoy!

Last winter's rosehips were hit by a blight. Here's hoping it does not persist!

Three Days Married

They did this job

together once before

three years ago,

the wrapping of the trees

to protect

from coming frost.

The fabric was new

then,

the trees in their first year

of fruit.

Their sons were 6 and 1.

Then,

as they had unrolled

the endless yardage of

pure white Agribon

the expanse of it

blinded

as it reflected back

their own

white hot anger.

They had squabbled

over the clothespins,

swore

when the chill breeze

 yanked

the sheer fabric from their hands.

They had awoken

the next morning

to discover

the clothespins

lost,

the tree

trailing her clothes

in the frosty wind.

That year,

there was no fruit

and in the years since

the yield,

uncertain.

The blossoms,

so often nipped

by the extremes.

Now,

though they make

these motions

for only the second time,

they work together as one.

The trees become decked

in yards upon yards

of white.

The garden,

the place of preparation

for patient young brides.

Together,

they fight the wind,

their hands

tugging in unison,

the baby pins glinting as they

pass them

back and forth.

The startling flash

of his wedding ring

so new

to them both.

When the wind

brings in a hail storm

they cower

in a shield of apricot branches.

They laugh

that this year

the onion snow

is the same size as

the growing onions.

The hail lays about their necks

inside their shirt collars

like strands of pearls.

She thinks of pearl necklaces

and feels the places

on her body

that ache slightly

from the weekend

they shared

together and alone.

Around them,

the garden is littered

with pearls.

The pearls

she had worn

three days ago

were from her mother.

Gray,

like the sky today,

the death of tears.

Her dress was the color

of jade.

A yellow and brown spider

had crawled

out of the tender pink

apple blossoms

he had picked for her.

Three boys come

to scoop hail into cups

and pop pieces

into their mouths.

beneath a sky

where the sun soon shines again.

She smiles.

For the brides of the garden,

the world is strewn

with pearls.

In the morning,

the pear tree's covering

will gradually blow free,

but the blossoms

unveiled

are still fresh,

holding the promise

of fruitful harvest.

Pirate Day!

We are planning a Pirate Day party at our house for next month. I was late seeing the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I had to wait until my first son was old enough to watch them with me, because nothing that exciting should ever be watched alone. He enjoyed the action, humor, suspense, and the awesome Kraken. He also developed an intense interest in all things pirate and a Davy Jones-inspired fascination with sea creatures. (Hence, we have Pirate Day!) I on the other hand was riveted to the love story of Will and Elizabeth. And of course we both loved the antics and attributes of one Capt Jack Sparrow! (Yes, Johnny Depp is hands-down the household's favorite actor.)

Cyril made this coloring page for his Pirate Day friends.

But back to the love story, because that is what I'm about. (Notice that the word "heart" comes first in my blog title.) I'm not sure how many fantastically exciting hours of watching pirates swashbuckling through worlds both ordinary and extraordinary it takes before one finally gets to the culmination of Elizabeth and Will's romance. I only know that I enjoyed every hour and their union, when it came, was as satisfying as the lead-in. But it is heartbreaking too, as you must know, because as the new captain of the Flying Dutchman, Will is cursed to spend only one day on land every ten years. When we last see the fair Elizabeth Turner, she stands on a hillside overlooking the ocean, waiting for her husband to come to her again after ten long years. And by her side stands their ten-yr-old son. Such a poignant and beautiful love story. I was left in tears.

When I think of Will and Elizabeth's love story, I get an image of Elizabeth's life in waiting. I see her standing on the hillside, looking out with intense longing over the ocean, which, with its endless emptiness, must only intensify her longing. The reason I picture her this way because I see in her a mirror of myself during a period when I also waited and longed with incredible intensity. But I was not standing overlooking the ocean. I was on ridge overlooking the place where the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers come together, also known as as Tioga Point in Athens, PA.

Tioga Point, Athens, PA

Chances are, Ross had no idea that I waited for him. We had been no more than co-workers and friends until the days before he left for Chicago. But that Spring, as he prepared for his departure, I felt a flowering of feeling for him. Just before he left, he showed me Tioga Point for the first time. He held my hand as we climbed to a clearing and stood looking at the junction of the rivers below. He talked about the history of the place, and about the time he worked there harvesting potatoes for Johnson's who presently own the land.

I was unhappily married at the time. My, now it does seem like that was so long ago. And when Ross left, my logical brain told me that I would never see him again even while my heart mourned for him. I continued to visit that clearing that overlooks Tioga Point. As I stood looking down at the field nestled between the two rivers, I thought about the natives who must have settled there. I thought of the canoeers and kayakers who had come through it feeling the exuberance of accomplishment as they floated from one river to the other. I thought of potatoes and the way that people are nourished by what comes from the ground even while the ground is nourished by the what flows downriver to it. And I thought about Ross, and his dreams, and I wondered what had ever become of my own.

Once upon a time, I had wanted to be a writer. Now, I was in an unhappy marriage and commuting over 3 hrs a day to a job as a library director. The library job was good, almost rewarding. But, the rest of it sucked. So during the times I spent in that clearing looking down at the rivers below, I reflected on my hopes and revised my dreams. I began to write everyday when I got home stories that Ross inspired. Stories of forbidden love, unrequited love, quiet passion, intense longing. With the help of my parents, I made plans to leave my husband and found a house closer to my job. I kept in casual contact with Ross and still waited . . . even though at times I know he thought I was a crazy person. Maybe, in fact, I was.

That fall, I turned 25. I remember my future sister-in-law and I talking about my birthday. She said, "Yeah, 25 is hard. You start looking at your life and thinking about kids and everything you have ever wanted." Ross also had turned 25 that year. Perhaps that is what propelled him to go to Chicago. It is what propelled me to walk out on my marriage just two weeks after my birthday. I have never looked back. I saw Ross briefly while he was home for a visit just a few days before my birthday. I showed him my soon-to-be new home. I sat across from him in a cafe and tried to say intelligent things about art. He held my hand as we walked down Broad St in Waverly, and things felt amazingly right.

My home in Nichols was not so far from the Susquehanna River. I would walk the levee there often and think about the water rushing through the tributary on its journey to the sea. It was foggy there almost every morning, and this time of my life, when I lived alone for the only time, took on a misty dream-like quality. But what I dreamed of truly was the time when I would no longer be alone, when Ross would be walking next to me.

At some point in November, Ross wrote to me that he hated it there in Chicago. I told him to come home and we would work it out. He did not reply. And then suddenly it was Christmas. He came home to see his family. He brought me a bottle of wine. He presented me with a rosemary plant for my new home and kissed me with the heady taste of the herb on his lips. We walked together on the levee in a December that was unusually warm and felt like Spring. He taught me how to skip stones. He talked about trees and earth. He said that he felt like we were Adam and Eve.

I sat next to the creek in Nichols and skipped stones by myself on the day Ross went back to Chicago. (No one will ever skip stones as well as Ross, though.) With every stone I tossed, I felt the gravity of it shifting and changing and marveled at all of the subtle and intense ways there are for the world to be transformed.

I found out I was pregnant about a month later. And when Ross finally came to live with me that May, the time of waiting for him was over. We waited together for Cyril to be born. Waiting is so much more bearable when you have someone to share it with. Elizabeth Turner knew that, no doubt, as she stood waiting after ten years with her son by her side.

I've got something on Elizabeth, though her story is achingly beautiful and gorgeously bittersweet. After ten years, Ross and I have three sons. And though things between us have been perfect only in intervals, and at times have been downright awful, I know one thing as surely as I know anything. I am grateful to have waited for Ross, and with all that I know, I would wait for him, still.

Cyril has long been awaiting Pirate Day. I keep telling him that it is coming. (Waiting is oh so much easier when you have someone to wait with . . . )


Aperture

Laying him down in his bed,

she pauses for a moment

to notice the shadow

they cast together

on the warm milk of the wall.

There is his head,

a purple gray orb,

flowing into her shoulder,

Transient

her neck,

the curve of her hair in its hasty ponytail.

The hair melts into

her other shoulder

and down into the frumpiness

of her sweater,

his feet,

her love handles.

She thinks she wants to capture

this image,

the milky wall,

the delicate sway as she rocks him

back and forth.

But she wonders,

could a camera

ever truly convey it?